I took the opportunity to  highlight some positive development in tourism in County Clare in a speech on the National Tourism Development Authority in Dáil Éireann in recent days. The speech is below..

National Tourism Development Authority (Amendment) Bill 2011 : Second Stage

At the outset, I want to welcome this Bill and I also welcome this opportunity to speak in relation to the Tourism Industry. Since being appointed as Minister of State, Michael Ring has taken on his brief with passion and determination and I want to thank him for the special interest he has taken in my own constituency in County Clare where he as visited on so many occasions since he becoming Minister.

During the summer while on holiday in West Cork I happened to hear Minister Ring on a radio interview with the journalist Matt Cooper. I just want to put on the record to this House that the Minister played an absolute blinder in focussing on the positives. I know that Mayo and Westport are very close to his heart, but I do think that at any and every available opportunity we should export Minister Ring around the world. His infectious enthusiasm for the job at hand would go a long way towards filling Jumbo Jets, Airbuses and Ferries into Ireland. I congratulate him on the way he has begun his tenure in office.

Tourism is of vital importance to our economy with the total spend in 2010 by overseas visitors and domestic tourists being estimated to be in the region of €4.7 billion. This year we have experienced a most notable and welcome increase in people travelling from Great Britain and North America. Coupled with this encouraging news is the data relating to visitors travelling from European countries being up by over 17%. This year, in particular, Irish People bought into the concept of staying at home, here in Ireland, for their holidays, and in so doing gave a massive lift to the tourism industry. It’s very important to keep this momentum and build upon this growth.

The Bill before us today provides for that momentum to continue, as it will enable the State to facilitate Fáilte Ireland in continuing in its programme of investment in capital expenditure on projects or enterprises. As the fund has been reduced to just €20 million it’s now necessary to bring forward this amending legislation to increase the cap. I welcome the fact that agreement has been reached between the Department of Tourism and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to establish a new legislative cap of €150 million.

The growth experienced in Tourism was stimulated in part by the decision made in the jobs initiative to reduce from 13.5% to 9% the level of VAT that applies to labour intensive tourism services. The halving of employer’s PRSI for those on modest wages has given employers a real incentive to employ people in the Tourist Industry. Over the coming months and up to the Olympics 2012 we will see the benefit of the visa waiver programme.

The New Horizons Tourism Action Plan identified in 2006 a concern that Ireland’s tourism product had become somewhat “tired” and lacking in “bounce” and “verve” for many tourists. This weakness is borne out by the fact that, in the years up to 2009, the number of visitors to Ireland who thought the overall experience was either “poor” or “very poor” showed significant increase. The industry is obviously facing key challenges in relation to competitiveness, product renewal and innovation. The future key to success has to be value for money.

Having said this, Tourism figures recently released covering the period to the end of July 2011 highlight the continued growth in overseas tourist numbers in comparison to 2010. Overseas trips to Ireland increased by 9.4% to 1,948,800, increases in visitors from mainland Europe, the UK and North America.

The largest % increase in tourist numbers at 18% and 200,000 visitors comes from the market designated as Other. This to me indicates that there is a lot of untapped potential around the world in markets and countries that we may not have traditionally focussed on as we sell Ireland as a destination.

It is also interesting to note that since 2008 according to Failte Ireland figures that the amount of Irish peoples Domestic trips exceeds the amount of Out of State trips. The gap is widening year on year. There is some food for thought in these figures also.

I am delighted that this week in my own Constituency of Clare we have had the announcement by Shannon Development that they are seeking tenders in relation to the potential development of 120 acres adjoining Bunratty Folk Park and Castle along the lines of a suitable Theme Park. A project such as this could have a significant impact on the whole of the Mid-West and West region. The fact that the lands are so close to Shannon Airport makes international accessibility easy. It is a project that is tailor made for aspects of this Bill. I would hope that this project will progress to the stage where Failte Ireland becomes involved.

At a different level but just as important in scale we have also seen last week the establishment of a Sea-Plane service based at Mountshannon on the shores of Lough Derg. This is just the beginning of a service that is envisaged to link a beautiful part of East Clare with the rest of Ireland, the Aran Islands and indeed internationally. It is this type of thinking and initiative that we should facilitate and I hope that with the provisions of this Bill that we will be in a position to do so.

I would also cite the potential regarding projects such as the provision of a Pedestrian Cable Suspension Bridge at Bishop’s Island which is located off the Loop Head Peninsula just outside Kilkee in Co. Clare. It is interesting to note that in this area of West Clare this summer the opening, to the public, of the Loop Head Lighthouse has been an enormous success. A combination of many small ideas can provide a most attractive package for a geographical area. I would hope that this may be borne in mind and that the headline projects do not take up all available funding.

Before I conclude, I want to welcome the creation by this Government of the new Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport. There is an obvious link between Transport and Tourism which has been copper-fastened with the establishment of this new Department. I am looking forward to the synergy that will be created as a result of combining Transport and Tourism.

Shannon Airport is the key driver of economic activity in Couny Clare, the Mid West and Western Regions. In this regard, I welcome the invitation made by Minister Varadkar to the Boards of Shannon, Cork and Dublin Airports for their views on how they would see the Airports operating independent from the DAA. I have for a number of years advocated the path now being pursued by the Minister and have strongly suggested this approach in my discussions with him since the formation of the present Government.

Minister Varadkar is fully aware of the importance of Shannon Airport to Balanced Regional Development. I believe the future of our Airport is dependent on a proactive approach by Government, this initiative by Minister Varadkar clearly demonstrates, that the indifference of the previous administration, in this, and so many other matters, is at an end.

I believe that a new Shannon, with a new dynamic energised and committed board, will, in a relatively short period of time, demonstrate what can be achieved. This board will need to be policy driven, with a policy which is anchored on a commitment to have a viable airport serving the needs of the region. I believe that in order to meet those diverse needs that we should not necessary reject state ownership. Any narrow based vision that might suggest that Shannon is just an Airport serving the narrow needs of an airport community must be rejected.

The new Shannon must integrate and interface with the various interests in the region who depend on the Airport for their success and survival. Those interests include those involved in the industry, tourism, education and balanced regional development. I am looking forward to further engagement with Minister Varadkar on this issue. Put bluntly it has been clear now for some time that the current structure has failed our Airport. There is an opportunity now for a new and invigorating initiative for our airport which can benefit the region as a whole and indeed bring significant national benefits and we must not let this opportunity pass.

I welcome the recent signing of the Heads of Agreement between Lynx and the DAA to develop a Cargo Hub at Shannon Airport and look forward to working with Minister Varadkar in pushing the case for cargo pre-clearance to the United States which will compliment the passenger Pre-Clearance facility which has been in operation for the past two years.

In conclusion, I welcome this Bill and regard it as an important step in the manner by which we go back to the drawing board as we re-develop a sector of our economy that offers much potential.